Monday, December 21, 2009

Santa, Kids, and an Elf on My Shelf

After weeks of us all being bombarded by Christmas ads from retailers, Santa's big day is less than a week out. It's almost sad to think about. I've grown accustomed to at least three commercials a day in which a group of confused elves, unable to complete their Christmas duties, show up at a Wal-Mart, a Walgreens, or a Radio Shack (those guys are still in business?) in hopes of finding the supplies they need to save Christmas. (Man, those advertising guys are original, aren't they?) I'll certainly miss the endless cantata of sacred Christmas hymns originally written to exalt the birth of our Lord and Savior that have been re-worded to sell ipods, cell phones, hi-def TVs, and state-of-the-art appliances. In the last month, I've watched Santa buy car insurance, purchase jewelry, talk to M&Ms, and oversee U.S. automobile manufacturing (thank you for the bailout Mr. President--apparently you saved Christmas). If only Christmas happened every month. Given enough ads I'm sure I'd eventually find out where Santa gets his colonoscopy, what brand of underwear he prefers, which NASCAR driver he supports, and whether its Cialis or Viagra that Mrs. Claus prefers to sneak into the big guy's stocking every year.

Of course, once you get past the almost nauseating commercialism of the season, Christmas is still a special and priceless family time. It's a time when you slow down a bit and enjoy traditions with your loved ones. This year, we continued established traditions and started new ones. Yesterday, my wife and I made our annual trek to the mall. No, we don't do our shopping there (my wife is the guru of finding great deals online and on Black Friday). Rather, we just go each year to get a photo of the kids with Santa to add to our collection. I stood in line for two hours holding our spot while Meredith and her mother took the kids around the mall. I don't know what did more to put me in the Christmas spirit, people staring at me with concern to see a grown man with no kids in line to see Santa , or watching frustrated moms yell at Santa's helper after she performed the unpleasant duty of telling us that Mr. Claus was about to take a dinner break and we'd have to wait one more hour. God bless us, everyone.

We also started a couple of new traditions. The most meaningful was our inaugural Gift for a Child party. Gift for a Child is a non-profit that is dedicated to encouraging and meeting the emotional and material needs of kids in foster care. It was started a few years ago by a good friend of ours and a heroic woman named Rene Gunn. Rene is an incredibly humble and godly woman who, despite being successful in the business world and having her own family, devotes all the time she can to helping children. She and Meredith came up with the idea of having a Christmas party in which guests would bring a gift to wrap for a foster child who otherwise might not receive much for Christmas. It was awesome! We had neighbors, friends from church, classmates and teachers from our daughter's school, and many others come to the party bearing gifts. We had all the fun and socializing of a normal Christmas party, but with a purpose. It was incredibly uplifting and served as a refreshing reminder of what the season is supposed to be about. We hope it is the first of many such parties. If any readers are looking for a way to make an impact in the lives of young men and women who have hopes and dreams but lack much of the love and support most of us take for granted, please go to and inquire as to how you might make a difference in one of these great kids' lives.

Our second new tradition involves Sam, our "Elf on the Shelf." Perhaps you have one too. Beginning on Thanksgiving Day, Sam sneaks into our house every morning before anyone is awake and finds a spot to hide in our home. The first thing the kids do every morning is try to find Sam and uncover his hiding place. Then, at night, Sam slips away while we're asleep to report to Santa how the kids are behaving before returning the next day. Sam watches everything we do. He knows what we have and what we don't have. He keeps a watchful vigil taking note of everything that comes in and goes out of the Howard household. In the off season, I'm pretty sure Sam works for the IRS.

We're not allowed to touch Sam. If we do, he'll lose his powers. Also, Sam's not allowed to talk; at least not to the kids. Once, he did talk to me for a while after the children were in bed. Before he took off to make his nightly report to St. Nick, Sam and I sat on the couch, watched a little of Sportscenter (he's a big hockey fan), and had a couple of beers. He's quiet most of the time, but once you get a couple of cold ones in the little guy, he really starts to open up. He told me that the highest honor any elf can receive is to ride with Santa on Christmas Eve. "You do a good job of being the big guy's wing man on Christmas Eve," Sam told me, "and you can pretty much count on renegotiating your contract when you get back to North Pole." Sadly, Sam told me there have been times when an elf has lost his or her privilege to ride with Santa. I close out this final Dadlosophies of the year by sharing with you the top 10 reasons Sam shared with me as to why an elf loses his or her spot accompanying Santa in his sleigh on Christmas Eve...

10. Got caught letting Rudolph play reindeer games
9. Forgot and took Prancer out for a joy ride in North Georgia during deer season
8. Guilty of switching the naughty and nice lists just for kicks
7. Overheard responding to one of Santa's commands with a crude hand gesture and the phrase "I got yer jingle bells right here!"
6. Angered Santa by releasing tell-all book entitled
Santa's Sweatshop
5. Wore "Jack Frost: Change We Can Believe In" campaign button to work
4. Posted compromising pictures of Mrs. Claus at North Pole Christmas party on TMZ
3. Discovered moonlighting for Keebler

2. Caught selling advertising space for male enhancement products on Santa's sleigh
1. Resigned to become the president of Iran

Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone! I'm taking a couple of weeks off. I'll return with new dadlosophies Monday, January 11, 2010.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Back to Bethlehem Y'all!

When I was seventeen years old, my Spanish teacher made a comment that has always stuck with me. "Trust me," he said, "the first twenty years of your life goes by very slow, but the rest of it will fly by faster than you can believe." Well, I'd have to say that my teacher was right. Now in my forties, I'm finding that the years zoom by. Case in point, it's already Christmas 2009. It seems like just last week I was taking down our artificial Christmas tree from last year and watching Oklahoma lose yet another January bowl game. But make no mistake, the yule tide sounds of Christmas carols, beeping cash registers, Black Friday moms sucker punching one another over half-priced Wii systems, and grandparent-induced guilt trips designed to ensure that we visit them on Christmas remind us all that, indeed, the festive Holiday Season has arrived.

I've always loved Christmas. As a kid, of course, you look forward to seeing what Santa Claus will leave under the tree Christmas morning. I can remember when I was a little boy and still believed that Kris Kringle delivered all the toys in person, without any help from Mom or Dad. My siblings and I normally had to lie in bed waiting until my mother came to get us and tell us it was time to go down the hall to see what toys Santa had left. Of course, if you hadn't been good that year, Santa would supposedly leave a lump of coal or a bag of "switches" in your stocking. (For you northern transplants, a "switch" was a southern word parents used to describe a stick with which they would beat their disobedient children. They didn't have to feel guilty or worry about being arrested because... well... it was a switch, not a regular stick.)

I remember only one year in which I really sweated it out, unsure if I'd find toys or a switch when I arrived at the Christmas tree. I was in the second grade. That's the year I discovered curse words. It's also the year I learned to cheat on homework. My buddy Ralph Canello and I would drop a few d-words and f-bombs over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the cafeteria, then return to Mrs. Stephenson's class early to copy Kim Wilson's math answers. We didn't think about the consequences. We were living life in the fast lane at John J. Blair elementary school. Then, December rolled around. Right about Thanksgiving I cut out the cursing and started doing my own homework (at least until January). I then waited nervously for Christmas morning. To both my surprise and relief, Santa hooked me up that year. I never worried too much about that naughty-nice list again. I figured Santa was either slipping and not that on top of things, or he was a lot more lenient than I'd been led to believe. Either way, I couldn't wait for school to start again so I could tell Ralph about all the f-bombin' toys Santa had brought me for Christmas.

Now I'm the dad. In addition to hopefully using less profanity, I also see it as my role to make Christmas special and memorable for my kids the way my parents made it special and memorable for me. That means consciously pulling myself away from work and the craziness of Christmas preparations to spend special times with my family. Christmas, after all, is about traditions. More than any specific toy or present that they'll receive, my children will look back one day and appreciate the things we did together every Christmas.

Take, for instance, last Friday night. Meredith and I loaded up our minivan with our kids and three of their friends from next door. Fortunately, the little girls next door are awesome and always a pleasure to have over. We didn't mind taking them because their parents have done such a great job of teaching them manners and respect. Still, six kids against two semi-sane adults is a challenging ratio. Nothing says "Jolly Christmas spirit" quite like trying to shove multiple booster seats and one toddler's car seat into a cramped minivan. After nearly dislocating my fingers and verbally accusing the seat belts of having a canine heritage, I finally--somehow--got all the seats in. Then, the joyous process of loading little people into just the right spot so that we all had room began. My wife and I looked like U.S. soldiers trying to pack fleeing refugees onto a helicopter during the Saigon Airlift. It was like a living version of that game psychologists make you play--the one where you have to see how quickly you can place different shapes into the right holes. Meredith would hand me a child, then I'd try in vain to fit him or her into a given spot. Eventually, after enough tears and screams of "Something's pinching my fanny!" I'd concede defeat, hand the child back, and tell Meredith to give me another kid. Finally, with all the refugees squared away and bundled up like midget adventurers on a Himalayan expedition, we headed north to Canton to visit Hopewell Baptist Church's "Back to Bethlehem."

I have to give kudos to Hopewell, the experience was really cool. Each Christmas they re-create ancient Bethlehem. Church members dress up as residents of the city or Roman guards, then do their best to make visitors feel like they're in Bethlehem the night of the Savior's birth. It's a lot of fun and very educational. I never realized "y'all" is a Hebrew word, but it obviously must be because all night long I heard phrases like "Shalom y'all" and "How far'd y'all come for the census?" Meanwhile, my kids had a blast. They learned about the synagogue, watched Roman soldiers parole the streets, and got to pet goats and see a live camel. Best of all, the experience got the kids thinking about Jesus. It was heart-warming hearing William ask when he could see baby Jesus, only to have his six-year-old sister, Emerson, explain to him that Jesus had actually been born a long time ago and that he had died on the cross and was already back in heaven. William thought about it for a minute and responded with the only words I guess a four-year-old could: "Then where's Santa?"

Aah yes, Christmas is busy. There are gifts to buy, plans to make, and work to rush to finish before taking a few days off for the Holidays. But most of all, there are traditions to be built and memories to make with your family. So I'll look forward to these next couple of weeks and do my best to savor them. Merry Christmas fellow dads. I hope you look back one day and realize that you took every advantage of making this one of the most fun and memorable Christmases your kids will ever know.

Monday, December 7, 2009

THANKS for visiting Dadlosophies: An Average Dad's Take on Life at Sorry, but due to a heavy workload there's no new post this week. You can scroll down to read all previous Dadlosophies. New posts will appear after 11am next MONDAY, DECEMBER 14th and the following MONDAY, DECEMBER 21st. After that, I'll be taking a break for Christmas and will begin posting again MONDAY, JANUARY 4, 2010. Thanks again and we'll see you next week.



Monday, November 30, 2009

Thankful in Munchkinland

Remember the story of The Wizard of Oz? It's the magical tale of a Kansas farm girl named Dorothy. Longing for something beyond Kansas, Dorothy finds herself transported to a place "somewhere over the rainbow." Carried away by a tornado, Dorothy's house finally comes to rest in Munchkinland, an enchanted place inhabited by energetic little folk who resemble elves on speed. Emerging from her battered house with Toto (a wiener dog with whom she has a semi-creepy relationship), Dorothy suddenly finds herself surrounded by rambunctious little people known as munchkins.

As a father, I feel I can identify with Dorothy. No, I've never been a Kansas farm girl. Nor have I ever donned a pair of ruby slippers, clicked my heels together, and chanted "There's no place like home" over and over again (except for one episode in college that involved a bet, a bottle of Jose Cuervo, and a really awkward encounter with the Chapel Hill police department). What Dorothy and I do have in common is this: We both know what it's like to occasionally find ourselves overrun and overwhelmed by needy little people. That's why I often refer to life with small children as living in "Munchkinland." You're constantly surrounded by little munchkins. Only, unlike Dorothy, there's no yellow brick road out of town... at least not for a few years.

And yet, despite the craziness and chaos that often reign in this suburb of OZ, I'm truly grateful for my time in Munchkinland. In fact, there's no place on earth I'd rather be. Sure, it would be nice to slip back to Kansas once in a while for a nap and a TV show that doesn't require counting to ten out loud; but truth be told, Kansas is just too quiet. While the madness of Munchkinland is sometimes enough to make me run for the hills, I always come back to the fact that my life is blessed and wonderful because of my beautiful wife and kids.

During this season of thanksgiving, it's especially fitting that I remember to be grateful. There was a time when Meredith and I didn't know if we would ever see the city limits of Munchkinland. Despite all our storm chasing, Meredith and I had a difficult time catching the tornado. Prior to our oldest child's birth, Meredith had three miscarriages. The first happened very quickly; Meredith miscarried just a day or two after we learned she was pregnant. The second miscarriage was the hardest. Meredith carried the baby for twelve weeks before we learned that our child had died. I'll never forget the experience. For the first few weeks everything seemed normal. We talked about the nursery. We argued over baby names. We wondered which Ivy League school the child would eventually attend. Then came Meredith's twelve-week check-up. When the nurse called her name, Meredith and I made our way back to the examination room. The nurse had Meredith lie down on a table, then ran a strange device over the top of her stomach in search of the baby's heartbeat--she couldn't find it. The nurses then moved us to another room where a specialist gave it another shot. She couldn't find a heartbeat either. Removing her latex gloves, the specialist calmly said, "I'll just be a moment," then excused herself from the room. A few minutes later the doctor entered to tell us what we already knew: Our baby was dead. Somewhere around the seven or eight week mark he or she simply stopped growing. After breaking the news, the doctor stepped out to give Meredith and I a moment alone. Saddened and in shock, I turned to my wife. Unable to hold back her tears any longer, Meredith broke down as she stammered the words, "I'm sorry." Eventually, I would cry my own tears of sorrow. But at that moment, all I could think about was how much I loved my wife and how much I wanted to comfort her. It broke my heart to see her so devastated. I rushed across the room to where she was seated, put my arms around her, told her I loved her, and assured her again and again that it wasn't her fault. Sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes, disappointments occur for no reason we can understand. Sometimes, mommies have miscarriages.

A few months later, there was a third miscarriage. Like the first, it was relatively quick. It wasn't as traumatic as the second miscarriage, but it was extremely disheartening and seriously challenged (but didn't destroy) our faith that we would ever become parents. Thankfully, God used friends in Atlanta to hook us up with a fertility specialist. He diagnosed some problems and performed a surgery that apparently fixed the problem. Meredith finally gave birth to our daughter, Emerson, in 2003. Not surprisingly, we decided to give her the middle name Faith.

And so, as I sat in church on Sunday listening to someone share about how grateful they are for their family, I took a few moments to watch my own little munchkins as they colored, fiddled with a toy, or did whatever else they could to remain quiet in the service. I thought about how fortunate I am to have them. It reminded me how important it is to take time to give thanks to God and to cherish the people that He has blessed you with. Even on its craziest days, Munchkinland is the best place on earth. So grab those little munchkins. Give them a huge hug. Play with them. Listen to them as they share with you Spiderman or Hannah Montana's coolest attributes. And allow yourself to enjoy the excitement of the holiday season as you stay close enough to your kids to see it through their eyes. Before you know it, the day will come when you'll wake up to realize that you're no longer in Munchkinland; your munchkins have grown up and headed off down the Yellow Brick Road to hang out with friends, date a guy (or girl) with tattoos, go to college, and so on. But for now, they're still munchkins. So hold them close, make the most of your time on this side of OZ, and give God all the thanks.

In the spirit of this Thanksgiving Season, here are ten more things that I'm thankful for:

1. Prozac (I don't use it, but it's good to know it's there)
2. My beautiful wife ('nough said)
3. The fact that even God hates Duke (Cameron Indoor Stadium is located on a site that used to be Sodom and Gomorrah)
4. Barack Obama's bailout plan (I was afraid that my kids and I wouldn't be taxed enough in the future)
5. Carolina basketball (because it represents all that is good)
6. My beautiful wife (it was worth mentioning again)
7. Good cigars (do I need to expound?)
8. My parents (for making the most of their own time in Munchkinland)
9. American Idol (because nothing says "wholesome family entertainment" quite like watching other people's dreams get crushed week in and week out)
10. Did I mention my beautiful wife?

Monday, November 23, 2009

K-9 Invasion

A number of people who've read my blog and newspaper articles have told me that my writing reminds them of the movie Marley and Me. It's a film based on the autobiographical book by writer John Grogan. The book describes everyday life during the thirteen years Grogan and his family lived with their out-of-control dog, Marley. I have to admit, I haven't seen the movie. I'm at a stage of life where the only movies I get to see are in computer animation or involve Hannah Montana singing hip-hop-ho-down songs in the midst of an identity crisis. But from the way people describe the film, I can understand the comparisons. I don't mean to put myself in the same league with Mr. Grogan as a writer (I'll wait until someone pays me millions of dollars to make a movie out of my book before I do that). Still, there are some similarities. We both write about real life--beginning in, and inspired by, the home. I've found that the people who enjoy my writing do so mostly because they can relate to it. They think many of the things I write about are funny because I focus on the things they deal with too. They understand the frustration of trying to fasten a car seat while your wife stands nearby saying things like "Why is it taking so long?" and "It's supposed to attach easily." They get how disheartening it can be to just finish filling the bath with water, only to notice the ripples around your two-year-old's private parts that tell you he's peeing in it. They know how hard it is to pull a Spiderman action figure out of a clogged toilet when you're already ten minutes late for work. Yes, people relate to writers like Grogan and myself because... well... we put into words the things they themselves feel and encounter. Hopefully, we do it in a way that makes them laugh at the otherwise maddening realities that make up family life. Laughter, after all, reminds us that the very moments that seem so upsetting at the time, often are the endearing memories that make us smile and reminisce fondly later on.

I mention the comparisons I've gotten to Marley and Me because, if true, then my writing is about to become even more Marleyesque. That's because the Howards have a new family addition. Last week, like so many pansy fathers whose resolve is no match for the sweet, persistent "please daddys" of their little children, I gave in and agreed to getting a dog. "How disruptive could it be?" I thought. "We have a fenced yard now. I won't have to walk the dog or follow it around with a pooper scooper." Yeah, let me be the first to admit it: I'm an idiot! I didn't consider the fact that my wife would adopt a dog in desperate need of an exorcism. I haven't actually witnessed it yet, but I'm pretty sure that when the dog isn't eating the kids' shoes, vomiting on my new rug, or attempting to make passionate love to my leg while I'm in the middle of a business call, she's probably in the next room levitating above the floor, spinning her head all the way around, and speaking to my children in Lucifer's voice.

I should have known I was in trouble when Meredith started researching dogs. I love my wife desperately, but we often aren't on the same page. Meredith will say something like, "We should buy a new house." To which I will respond, "Yeah, we could possibly do that." BOOM! The next thing I know, I'm hitting grocery stores in search of empty boxes and figuring out which moving company to use. What I often consider an idea, Meredith considers a plan. The same thing happened with the dog. The kids had been begging for one, so Meredith asked me what I thought. What I said was, "I'm open to it." What Meredith somehow heard was, "For the love of God woman, get us a dog now!!" Within twelve hours, Meredith had researched and found out that boxers are great with kids. She neglected to tell me that boxers also apparently do crystal meth. Before I knew it, Meredith had found a pet rescue center that specialized in boxers.

Something told me I was about to bite off more than I could chew when Meredith informed me that someone from the center was coming over to do a "home visit." I kid you not; we had to submit to a home visit before we could get a dog. "You've gotta be kidding me," I thought. "What, are we adopting a child or a dog?" Every ounce of me wanted to mess with the "doggie social worker" when she came over. I couldn't help but think of things I wanted to do or say to freak her out. I could just picture how fun it would be to answer the door wearing a Michael Vick football jersey, then ask her questions during the interview like: "So, which parts of these dogs are the meatiest?" and "Hypothetically speaking, how well can boxers be trained to fight?" Of course, I didn't do or say any of those things; Meredith would have killed me. So I bit my tongue, submitted to the "home visit" (I'm still shaking my head even as I write the words), and did my part to help our family attain the highly-sought-after status of "Boxer Approved."

A couple of days later, Meredith and the kids arrived home with our new family member: a thirteen-month old, somewhat lovable, yet certifiably crazy boxer named Zoe. There are moments when I really like Zoe. When I have the time to wrestle or play, I enjoy rough-housing with her in the backyard. But my life is hectic enough. I'm doing all I can to keep the plates of marriage and parenthood spinning. I can't do it with a boxer constantly nipping at my feet. To make matters even harder, my wife is overly concerned about the psychological well-being of this dog. Every time I attempt to put Zoe in the backyard alone for a while so I can get some work done or just watch a game without being jumped on, Meredith is quick to point out how much boxers don't like to be alone and how they need human contact. I'm sorry, I thought she got enough human contact when she was humping my leg. Or how about the twenty times an hour I have to wipe the snot off her face so that she doesn't get it on my new couch. I have three kids for cryin' out loud. I'm over my daily snot-wiping quota already without a dog. I don't need a dog with sinus-related issues. Certainly canine mucus removal must count for some kind of human contact.

Then there's the at least once a day that my daughter, Emerson, rushes into the house screaming, "Daddy, Zoe's attacking William! Zoe's attacking William!" I drop what I'm doing and rush outside to find my four-year-old traumatized son curled up in a ball, crying, and screaming "Daddy, Zoe's eating me!" Meanwhile the dog stands over him, nipping and licking in an attempt to play. William's not hurt, he's just scarred for life. Later, when he's older and watches the movie Cujo for the first time, he'll probably wet himself, flashback to those episodes in the backyard, and plot ways to kill the father who failed to protect him from this maniac dog. Yep, make no mistake: Zoe is the anti-Lassie. If Ole Yeller was a Jedi knight, then Zoe is Darth Spayeder. She doesn't mean to be the embodiment of canine mayhem, it's just worked out that way--at least sometimes.

So why haven't we gotten rid of Zoe? Well, don't think we haven't thought about it. In fact, don't think I haven't considered it as recently as this morning. But the fact is, Zoe is a lot like me. Just when you think she's been a big enough jerk to warrant excommunication from the family, she does something just heart-warming enough to redeem herself and make you think, "Well... maybe she's worth keeping." The kids love her. My wife wants to give her a chance (although Zoe overwhelms her at times, too). In between the mad attacks on my furniture or the "quality play times" Meredith insists that I have with the dog in the backyard, I catch glimpses of a sweet pet that could very likely grow to be one of my children's best childhood memories. Even William, God bless him, loves Zoe. And so, for now, we'll hang in there and see how things go. At the very least, Zoe will keep me supplied with material. Who knows, maybe there's a Doglosophies blog somewhere in my near future.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Let's Hear It for Buffets and Chinese Delivery

(This post is a modified version of an earlier article)

I love to eat out. Food is definitely my weakness. God forbid that I ever end up under a mountain of insurmountable debt. But if I do, people will likely find me comatose under a pile of credit card bills filled with charges to Ruby Tuesdays (awesome ribs), Mexican restaurants, and enough Chinese delivery to put me in the running to be our nation's next ambassador to Beijing. Still, as much as I love it, there's no getting around the fact that eating out changes drastically once you become parents. No more hitting restaurants around 7pm for a slow-paced and enjoyable meal. Appetizers and intelligent adult conversations as you wait for your dinner become things of the past. Now you find yourselves battling senior citizens for the best seats at places that offer early bird specials. With kids, going out becomes a major logistical operation. there are diaper bags, bibs, strollers, and hand wipes involved. The word buffet takes on a whole new meaning. Buffets mean no waiting. No waiting means less screaming, fewer emotional meltdowns, shorter periods of scrutiny from bothered co-patrons, and less money spent on sedatives to calm your parental nerves. If you're lucky, you can be in and out before your kids ever realize that they've missed the opportunity to become a public spectacle.

Oh sure, Meredith and I occasionally attempt to eat at a restaurant where the waiter or waitress actually takes your order and brings your food to the table. But with three small kids, such outings are far from fun and relaxing. Loaded down with diaper bags, collapsible strollers, booster seats, and enough hand sanitizer to sterilize an operating room, my wife and I lead our tiny troops out of our minivan and into the unsuspecting establishment. Once inside, we immediately see the hostess' face turn white with dread as I utter the words, "Howard, party of five." The five to ten minutes that we wait for our table seems like an eternity as we try to keep our impatient little bunch together. Like alternating goalies in a Stanley Cup final, Meredith and I take turns attempting to keep our crew in check between our dancing bodies and a corner of the all-to-small waiting area. Finally, just when we can't deflect another puck, the hostess leads us to our table. Passing young dating couples, friends enjoying an evening out together, and various others just trying to savor a quiet meal, I can see the look of Dear God, No!! in their eyes as they spot our boisterous brood heading for their area.

Once seated, Meredith and I zip through the menu as quick as we can. Our waitress barely has time to say, "Good evening, my name is..." before we hit her with a whole list of drink and entree orders. Sorry, no time to order drinks, appetizers, and main dishes separately in our parental world. After ordering, we try in vain to manage the madness of spilled drinks, overturned salt shakers, multiple bathroom trips, and little people enamored with the sound a metal spoon makes when banged repeatedly against a restaurant table. All the while, the restaurant's liquor and beer selection grows more and more appealing with each passing moment.

Finally, our food arrives. Meredith and I get the kids served as fast as we can. Then we proceed to down our meals at a rate rivaled only by starving refugees. It's not that we're hungry, it's just that we know the window for escaping without a major kiddie meltdown is rapidly closing. Once finished, my wife and I grab our macaroni and chicken-finger covered children and break for the door.

One paid check and a hectic journey across a busy parking lot later, our little platoon is back in the minivan. Mission accomplished. Troops fed. On the surface, Operation Meal Out was a success. But it will be hours, if not days, before Mom and Dad recover from the traumatic ordeal. I still love eating out. But since my current insurance plan doesn't cover emotional therapy, I think I'll stick to the buffets and Chinese delivery until the kids are older.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Somewhere Between Bigfoot and Donald Trump's Tears

I'm a schedule kind of guy. There's a lot going on in my life. I've got my own business. I've got a marriage. I've got three awesome but inevitably demanding children. And, with mid-November nearly upon us, I'll soon have North Carolina Tarheel basketball to watch. In short, there are a lot of demands on my time. To make things even more challenging, I usually work from home. On the surface that sounds like a great gig--and in many ways it is. But you'd be surprised how slow production goes when you're working within shouting distance of the fam. It's hard to stay on schedule when you're breaking up arguments over who gets the Incredible Hulk cup at breakfast, or trying to calm down a child you can't understand because they've burst into your office scralking (screaming, crying, and talking at the same time). Throw in the three or four times a morning my wife breaks my concentration with screams of "Calm down, your father is working!" or interrupts me with requests like "Can you take a break to help me with just one thing?" and you've got the potential for some mounting frustration.

The point is, when you've got a hectic life, routine helps. Daytimers can be like second Bibles. Scheduling well and sticking to a plan can be the all-important difference between accomplishing what must be completed in a day or finding yourself behind the eight ball because today's unfinished tasks have overflowed into tomorrow's already full plate. That's why, every morning after I get my daughter off to school and spend some time praying, I open up my daytimer and lay out a strategy for getting things done. I love getting it down on paper. On paper, my plan always works--I can fit everything in.

There's just one problem. When you're married with kids, unaltered plans rank somewhere between sightings of Bigfoot and Donald Trump crying on the list of rare occurrences. Jimmy Ray Jimbob's claim that a spaceship of aliens "come along and snatched me outta my deer stand cuz they said they was wantin' to study intelligent life on earth" is far more believable than any father claiming to work from home without familial disturbances.

Of course, I love my family more than work. Any writing project I'm involved in is not as important as my wife and kids. It's not that I don't want to be available to deal with all the situations or help with family demands that arise during the day. It's just that, last time I checked my direct deposits, my kids don't pay me very well. In fact, they're takers. My first-grade daughter has been living rent-free under my roof for over six years now. Except for a two-year phase in which she wanted to become a princess, she hasn't even offered to get a job and help with the family expenses. Her two younger brothers, William and Carson, seem content to simply play and watch Sesame Street. No ambition. No vision. No asking themselves, "What am I doing with my life?" Nope, they just want to have fun and bother their sister. Other than breaking the world's record for most questions a four-year-old can ask his father in a ten-hour period, William has no real goals. Carson, meanwhile, just wants to eat, hide half-eaten lollipops in clean laundry, and sit for as long as possible in poopy diapers. My wife works as much as she can, but she and I agree that we want her devoting most of her attention to being a mom (a role she's gifted at). That means that family income falls predominantly to me. I don't want to put work before my family, but I've grown accustomed to making sure we have electricity and enough food to eat too.

And so, flexibility becomes everything when you're a dad--especially if you work from home! At home, the snares and conflicts of family life can catch you even during the work day. You still have to meet all the demands of your job; you've just got to learn to be okay with the fact that it won't all go according to plan. That project you were going to be wrapping up by 6pm so that you could relax and watch the ballgame at eight, often has to become the task that you're still working on at 11pm because--well--daddyhood called somewhere during the day. Yep, as a father, you have to know ahead of time that, while your daytimer might make for a fun read, it still belongs in the fiction section next to Cinderella and Barak Obama's My Life as a Moderate.

If you're a work-at-home dad who sometimes deals with the frustrations of trying to run your business or please the boss while simultaneously answering the call of scralking little people and a wife who expects you to have time for "just one thing," then take heart! You're not alone! We're in this together, brother. Just take life where it's at. Pray for wisdom to pick your battles. Hopefully, you'll know when it's time to step out of the office to help with family matters and when it's time to lock the door and pretend you can't hear Armageddon occurring in the next room. And talk to your wife--A LOT! Meredith and I have drawn boundaries, only to cross them and have to talk and redraw them again. The key is communication. Keep sharing feelings and expectations, and make sure your wife feels free to do the same. Don't let the frustrations that often accompany the conflicting demands of work and parenthood spark arguments between you and your wife. Just keep trying. And who knows? Maybe one day you'll come across Bigfoot on a camping trip or find yourself passing a Kleenex to Donald Trump.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hello weekly dadlosophites! Sorry for the late notice, but no new post this week. Been busy hanging out with the guys (see last week's post). Look for the next Dadlosophies post next Monday, November 2nd, by 11am. Have a great Halloween guys!



Sunday, October 18, 2009

Guy Friends: I Need 'em

My wife says I need more friends. I suppose she's right. The guys I feel closest to still live in North Carolina, where I spent most of my life. Here in Georgia, I really don't have close friends. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of guys I know. A lot of them I like and would enjoy hanging out with. But when it comes to people I feel like I can totally be myself around or have a natural inclination to hang out with, I really don't have those kinds of friends. I know some guys from church and in my neighborhood that I think I could potentially be close to, but at this stage of life, it's difficult to build new friendships. I think most guys feel the same way. Once you have kids, life becomes consumed with work and family. It's all you can do to make sure your wife doesn't feel neglected, much less have any time left over to hang out with the guys.

Women are different. They're naturally more social than men are. My wife can strike up a lifelong friendship with someone in the car line at my sons' school for cryin' out loud. Just the other morning, she met her friend Sylvia for coffee at 9am. She called me at noon to tell me that they were just finishing up and that she was running to the store on her way home. How the heck can you have coffee and just talk for three hours? Guys can't hang out that long unless they're watching a ballgame, playing golf, dealing cards, or tracking something they intend to kill. Even then, we don't say that much to each other. Words aren't that important. We bond just being together while we do something. Women bond through talking, expressing emotions, and validating each other's feelings. If one of the guys asks me how my day was, I usually respond with something like, "It was good; you?" To which he will likely respond, "It was good." Boom! Conversation over. Pass me a beer and a bag of nachos, and turn the game on. If, however, you ask my wife or one of her girlfriends how her day was--trust me--you better have already peed; it ain't gonna be a brief conversation.

Don't even get me started on telephone conversations. With the exception of business calls, my longest phone talks last between thirty seconds and two minutes. I'm on the phone just long enough to know who I'm talking to, relay or receive any relevant information, find out if I am expected to be anywhere at a later time as a result of the phone call, and, if so, when and where I am supposed to be. Beyond that, I have no reason nor desire to stay on the phone any longer. It's short and sweet; a cell phone company's nightmare; no going over my minutes.

Women, on the other hand, are the reason cell phone company CEOs own vacation homes in Europe. They can talk on the phone for hours--ABOUT NOTHING! I can get off the phone after a forty-five second exchange and tell you exactly what has been or will be accomplished because of my talk. My wife, by comparison, can walk in the house on her cell phone, remain engaged in the same conversation while she unpacks her groceries, keep talking as she prepares an entire dinner, and not hang up until food is on the table and the kids have washed their hands. After which, if I ask her what she and her friend were discussing, she's likely to say something like, "Oh, Mary (or Sylvia, or Angela, or Stacy...) was just telling me about her day."

Yep, women have a whole different outlook and expectation of relationships. Men want someone they can hang with. He doesn't have to be deep or ever discuss a single human emotion. Heck, it's not even essential that he has any emotions. As long as he owns power tools we can occasionally borrow, we're good. Women, on the other hand, want someone to talk to, connect with, know on a deeper level. It's two different definitions of friendship.

All that being said, I'm seeing as I get older that it is important to make time for friends. Being married with kids is a high-pressure life. You're responsible for making sure your wife and kids feel loved and secure. You struggle to provide for their future as well as their present. All the while, you want to be a great example for the little ones you know are looking to you to learn how they should behave and what kind of people they should grow up to be. I need guys I can talk to. Sometimes, I just need to vent while they listen. Other times, I just need to shut up and listen to their stories so that I realize I'm not the only one struggling to try and be the man I should be. We're all baffled by our wives, tested by our kids, and stressed out (at least at times) by the daily concerns of life. I don't just need friends, I need the right kinds of friends. I need guys I can respect, who I know share my passion to be a godly, faithful, and loving husband and father. Those are the kind of men who can help me with their words, while inspiring me with their example.

Yes, I want to enjoy watching the game or cutting up over a tall cold one; but I need the occasional meaningful talk and good advice too. So, as a husband and a father, I'll make more effort to build the relationships I need here and now. I have no intention of listening for an hour while you tell me about your relatively uneventful day. But if you can help me be a better husband and father, I'm all ears.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Slower Moments

Normally, when I sit to write my weekly Dadlosophies post, I have a specific topic in mind. Maybe it's the state of my minivan, the materialism and expense of modern-day birthday parties, or the discouragement of discovering that the second sock I just spent twenty minutes looking for was hijacked and made into a hand puppet days earlier. To be sure, when you're a dad (or a mom) there's no shortage of material. But today, as I sit at a local coffee shop, sipping my $2.39 cup of mediocre coffee and listening to a CD by someone who sounds like a graduate of the Bob Dylan linguistics academy, I have no particular topic on which I feel the urge to expound. Instead, I just want to share a little about my weekend. After all, while fatherhood is certainly a fast-paced existence--full of dips, climbs, zigs, and zags--it also has its slower moments; times when, if you're lucky enough to catch yourself and realize that you need to soak them in, make for the simple but special memories that make all the challenges of parenting worthwhile.

My two oldest children spent last Friday night at their grandmother's. My wife's mom is always great about wanting to spend time with the kids. Occasionally, when she's feeling really bold, she'll invite the two older ones to sleep over. It's always interesting to notice the transformation that just twenty-four hours can bring. My mother-in-law never fails to pick the kids up in her usual, "Oh, aren't we going to have so much fun at Nana's house" demeanor. There's talk of the popcorn they'll pop, the movies they'll watch, the park they'll go to, and so on. The kids cheer and jump up and down with excitement. My mother-in-law smiles with delight at the joy on her grand kids' faces. How could such happy people ever have anything less than non-stop fun? Then, less than a full day later, my mother-in-law returns, her car riddled with McDonald's fries, her hair slightly less kept than the day before, and the words can I please have a sedative? written all over her face. Meredith and I emerge from the house to see Nana unstrapping two angry midgets who have taken the place of the delightful children who left the day before. Tears and yells abound as the two continue their heated exchange over a Happy Meal toy, each desperately trying to be the first to present their case to mom and dad that the toy is rightfully theirs. Sometimes we convince Nana to stick around for a while. Other times, she doesn't even turn off the car.

But Nana's continual willingness to voluntarily be alone with small kids for extended periods of time--while a fascinating study in human behavior--is not the main point of this article. No, I want to focus on the time I got to spend alone with my youngest, Carson, on Saturday, and the time I spent with my family on Sunday. Carson is only two years old, but he's old enough to feel left out when the older ones get to do things he's not yet ready for. So, to make Carson feel special, Meredith and I took him to a family festival in Atlanta Saturday morning. It was cool for Meredith and I to have some time with just Carson. Sometimes, the little guy gets lost in the madness of the Howard household, so it was nice that he got to be the center of attention for a while. The highlight, for me, was walking beside a pony while Carson took his first ever "horsie ride." My little guy grinned from ear to ear as he rode round and round, his tiny legs barely spread wide enough to straddle his mighty steed. It was awesome seeing how happy he was and hearing him say "nice orsie" over and over again as he pet the pony's mane. Later that day, Carson and I sat on the couch together to watch a college football game. I don't even remember the score of the game; I just remember I couldn't have been more content. I was right where I wanted to be. Sitting on my couch, my little buddy snuggled up to me in his baseball cap, my arm around him while we watched the game. Sure, he was there largely because he wanted some of the chips I was eating, but so what. I could tell by the look on his face every time I squeezed him close and told him that I loved him that he was kinda glad to just be close to dad too.

By Sunday morning, the Howard household was back to normal. Emerson and William were home. Despite the hectic pace of getting ready for church, we all made time to sit and have breakfast together at the kitchen table. William chose that moment to display his newly discovered talent: the ability to cross his eyes. What made William's performance even more hilarious was how badly it freaked out his mother. Once William knew he had Meredith on the hook, he refused to let her go. With every "Hey, Mom, look at me," that William threw Meredith's way, he elicited screams, cringes, and comments like, "William, stop it before you ruin your eyes!" Meanwhile, Emerson, Carson, and I couldn't help but die laughing at the sight of Meredith squirming uncomfortably as a giggling William continued to shoot her cross-eyed looks.

Later that afternoon, while Meredith and Carson napped, Emerson and William helped me clean up their toys. Then Emerson asked me if I would teach her to play chess. I'm no chess guru, but I know enough to show a six-year-0ld the basics. So, for the better part of an hour, Emerson and I played chess. The TV was off (when it comes to my daughter, football has to wait). The sun was shining through the windows to the kitchen. We could hear a few birds chirping outside. Work that needed attending to sat untouched the entire day on my desk in the office. All in all, it was a great day.

Life's crazy. As a self-employed freelance writer, it's easy for me to let work and the pursuit of an income crowd the time with my family. School activities, daily errands, and trying to keep a house full of rambunctious little people in relative order, could easily keep Meredith and I going non-stop. But you know what? Sometimes, you just need to stop anyway. If you're waiting for a convenient time--or even a practical time--to stop and take a break to enjoy special times with your kids, then you're likely to miss many of the priceless moments you could have experienced. Most of the really awesome memories I'll enjoy looking back on later are just simple things. They're first-time "horsie" rides, cross-eyed looks over a couple of scrambled eggs and a pop tart from the other side of the table, and a beginner's game of chess on a Sunday afternoon. Thank goodness for the quieter, slower times. Feel like you need a break from the craziness of work and the daily routine? Block out a day just for the family. Make the work, the cleaning, and the errands wait while you laugh together in the living room or at the kitchen table. Trust me, the craziness of life will be waiting for you the next day when you return.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Where Were These Kinds of Birthday Parties When I Was a Kid?

Just over a week ago, my son, William, turned four years old. Birthdays are always a special time, especially when it's a small child's. I'm a forty-year-old, married father of three. My own birthdays aren't that exciting for me. Each one means I'm one year closer to that unfortunate day when I don a pair of Bermuda shorts, throw on some black dress socks with an IZOD shirt, grab a metal detector, and delusionally think to myself, "Oh yeah,... I look good." Nowadays, all I want for my birthday is a nap, the chance to watch what I want on television for one day, and the knowledge that my prostate is okay. I usually don't even remember it's my birthday until I enter the kitchen the morning of to find my beautiful wife greeting me with a cup of coffee, a soft kiss, and a pleasant, "Happy Birthday, Honey." Then, I proceed to dish out kisses, hugs, and expressions of appreciation for the hand-drawn cards the kids have made me. All the while, I pray under my breath that the two younger ones won't ask me to tell them what the scribbling on the front of their cards are pictures of. One year, I seriously hurt some feelings by suggesting that a picture intended to be me and my son playing baseball was, instead, a portrait of two blobs of Jello fighting for space in the same bowl.

But, as I said, kids' birthdays are much different. A child's birthday usually ranks second only to Christmas in terms of excitement and anticipation. William is certainly no different. For several months leading up to his fourth birthday, he asked almost daily, "Daddy, is today my birthday?" Each time following up his question with the same request: "Daddy, when I turn four, can I have a skateboard?" Fortunately, my relentless bargain-hunting wife found just the perfect sized skateboard on one of her consignment sale safaris. I wrapped it the night before William's birthday and left it on the kitchen table. Meredith and I couldn't wait to see the look on his face the next day when he ripped into his special gift. The moment certainly didn't disappoint. William was so ecstatic that he even let his sister play with his other birthday gift (an almost unheard of gesture in Kids Who Can't Yet Read world ). My little buddy beamed with pride as he coasted up and down the driveway, still dressed in his choo-choo train jammies and wearing his studly, one-size-too-big, Spiderman skateboard helmet. All day long, the skateboard never left his side. If William wasn't riding it, then he was confidently carrying it under his arm, helmet still on, strutting like an old pro who'd just kicked some serious butt at the Munchkinland X-Games.

Of course, the highlight of William's birthday was his party. We reserved one of those places with all the jumpy things. The kind where you pay, take off the kids' shoes, and then let 'em run wild. The kids love it. They don't even notice the floor burns from all the sliding until you get them home and put them in the bath. They even like the overpriced cardboard-like pizza. Heck, when you're a four-year-old, life just doesn't get any better than running and jumping on giant, inflatable, jungle animals.

Which brings me to my question: Where the heck were these kinds of birthday parties when I was a kid? Oh sure, we had parties; but the birthday parties I went to normally consisted of cake and ice cream at someone's house, a couple of goofy party games, and some poor kid going home crying because he inadvertently wound up with a cut-out donkey tail tacked to his ass while playing an otherwise uneventful game of pin the tail on the donkey. Try passing that off as a birthday party today and you're liable to find yourself labeled the lamest parents in the subdivision (your only rival being the dad who still wears his 'Frankie Say Relax' T-shirt to the community pool and the Mom down the street who hands out fruit at Halloween). Today, a child's birthday party requires serious event planning. Instead of hosting one in your own backyard, parents are expected to rent out inflatable amusement parks or places with giant, dancing mice who cause the birthday boy or girl's younger siblings to have nightmares for at least two weeks. And if that weren't enough, moms and dads are also expected to provide gift bags for every child that attends the party. When did this start? I never got a gift bag when I went to one of my friends' birthday parties. No, in my day, we went bearing gifts and got nothing in return. Instead, we just watched the birthday boy or girl tear into their booty. All the while, we sat giftless off to the side, sucking the last remnants of Betty Crocker icing off of our paper plates and trying to act nice so that we wouldn't get our butts spanked for being rude when we got home. Now everyone who comes to the party has to get something. What is this, communism?

Oh well, what are you gonna do? I guess the most important thing is that William had a great day. As a dad, that's my job: to make sure that my kids' birthdays are memorable. The truth is, it doesn't take a jumpy place or an expensive party. As Meredith's consignment sale magic shows year after year, it doesn't require the newest, most expensive, or state of the art gifts. All it requires is being there and making your little boy or girl feel like the day is just as big a deal to you as it is to them. My kids' birthdays aren't about making sure they have the nicest or newest stuff. It's about reminding them that they are one of the most precious blessings in their daddy's life (along with their mother and siblings). Happy Birthday, William. We look forward to your fifth birthday next year. I just hope it doesn't get here too fast. And while we're on the subject, tell your sister and brother to stop growing up so fast too. I've still got plenty of room in my office for more of those hand-drawn cards.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hello loyal dadlosophites! Due to our family's recent move, the worst flooding Georgia has seen in a century, and a bit of traveling over the weekend, I've not been able to prepare a new Dadlosophies entry this week. I'll be back next Monday with a new post. Please continue to remember in your prayers the many families who lost loved ones and suffered tremendous financial loss during the recent flooding. See you next week.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Pain of Moving

It's Sunday evening, just after 7:30pm. Tonight, I write my dadlosophies post from the public confines of a relatively quiet Books-a-Million. Normally, I would be sitting at my office desk or outside my house. But, this week, I don't have Internet access at home. No standard high-speed; no convenient wi-fi. That's because, just a few days ago, my family and I tackled a commonly undertaken, yet always dreaded endeavor. Hundreds of thousands of Americans do it every day. Almost all of whom find themselves pushed to the point of insanity and struggling against urges to turn to alcohol or narcotics for comfort before the task is complete. I am talking, of course, about moving. Packing up an entire household and moving to a new home is nothing short of a hellish experience that ranks just below unanesthetized castration and listening to George Michael CDs on the list of human suffering.

Meredith and I have moved many times. Before we had kids, we moved from apartments, to town homes, to houses. In 2002, we moved from Charlotte to Atlanta. A year later we moved with our baby daughter to Marietta. Then, buying our first home in Georgia, we set up shop in Kennesaw, where we've lived for the last five years. It was while living in Kennesaw that our two boys were born. And now we've moved to Powder Springs. It's only twenty minutes away, but--short distance or long--having to move all your crap is still having to move all your crap. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a whole lot of cardboard boxes.

This is the first move we've made with three kids. Let me tell you, as children multiply, so does the crap; and I'm not just talking about the kind you find in their diapers. The items that must be packed and transplanted are unending: Clothes, toys, cribs, beds, games, bikes, thousands of sippy cups, coloring books, barrels of play-dough, and so on, and so on, and so on. And God help you if you "accidentally" throw away a plastic toy that's been sitting behind a couch unplayed with for two years. I learned the hard way that deciding to discard such objects on the basis that they haven't been missed in twenty-four months is almost as brilliant as General Custer's "I'm sure there's not that many Indians over there," line of reasoning. Nope, if your kids see it, you're most likely packing it. And that's just the children's stuff. It doesn't even include all of your wife's stuff, your stuff, appliances, pictures, furniture... The list is overwhelming. It's enough to make a man reject worldly possessions and move to a Tibetan monastery. (Yak's milk, anyone?)

Thank goodness for the professional movers we hired. Sure, some of them weren't the sharpest knives in the drawer (when I pointed out to them that they had forgotten to load my television, they looked at me like I had just rushed through explaining a calculus problem). But, overall, they were nice, respectful, and did all the heavy lifting. So I'm grateful for the job they did.

Long story short, we survived the move. Now begins the challenging process of unpacking. Who knows what long lost items or undiscovered bodies will turn up. Right now, I'd just settle for finding my can opener. Staring at a pantry of canned goods and having no clue where your can opener is while three kids chant, "We want Spaghetti O's, we want Spaghetti O's!" is a cruel torture right out of a Twilight Zone episode. Anyway, wish me luck. Books-a-Million is closing. So, as much as I hate to rush, I've got to wrap it up this week. Take care my fellow dads. I'll be back next week. Provided I can find my router.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Children of the Corn

It's been a couple of weeks since my last entry. A lot has happened since then. Labor Day has come and gone. Football has returned to rescue Saturday and Sunday afternoons. And my wife and I have endured the always fun process of closing on a new home and packing to move. I also did something I'd never done before. Just over a week ago, Meredith and I took our three kids and my mother-in-law to visit a North Georgia corn maze. A corn maze is just what its name suggests. It's a maze cut out of a field of ten to thirteen-foot-high corn. People (of their own free will mind you) pay their hard-earned money for the "privilege" of getting lost in and trying to find their way out of a field of corn. If you think about it, a corn maze is really a monument to rural capitalism. Where else but in America can a down-on-his-luck farmer look at a field of corn, say to himself, "Hey, I bet if I took my big John Deere and cut a maze in that son of a gun they's people from Atlanta dumb enough to pay to walk through it," and proceed to rake in big bucks from folks who, because they've heard that this is what families do during the fall in Georgia, are eager to spend a Saturday meandering through corn. Somewhere, the agricultural entrepreneur who came up with this idea is sitting at a table, counting his money, and laughing it up with the guy who got rich proving Americans are stupid enough to buy water.

I can honestly say that I have never had a burning desire to go to a corn maze. But one of the magazines I occasionally write for asked if I would check one out in exchange for them flipping the bill for my family. So, my wife and I loaded up the minivan and headed up highway 400. After picking up my mother-in-law, we arrived at our destination about an hour later. Being a small-town boy from North Carolina, I'm a country guy. I love rural settings, country folk, and the quiet, simple life. But even for me, this place was out in the boonies--the kind of place where Deliverance is considered a romantic comedy and folks are shunned for marrying outside the family. Nevertheless, as we pulled up, I saw people smiling and laughing, apparently having emerged from the corn maze alive, so we parked and unloaded our crew.

One thing I learned fast: Don't go to a Georgia corn maze in early September. It's too freakin' hot. If you're just dying to navigate crops, hold off until October when the weather is more bearable. We entered the corn maze just after the sun reached its noon time peak (a tactical mistake on my part). As I led my children into the agricultural labyrinth, I was handed a map that, in theory, was supposed to insure that we found our way through without any problems. It proved useful for all of ten minutes before my family and I found ourselves lost in a Stephen King horror story. As sweat poured out of our rapidly dehydrating bodies, our tiny band wandered aimlessly among the ears of corn. Our only remaining connection to civilization was the occasional sound of another father somewhere in the field calling out in anguish, "Where the hell do we turn left! The map says we should turn left!" All the while, I'm certain that Vietcong soldiers are hiding in the jungle-like rows, waiting to ambush and kill us. The last time a group got so lost trying to find where they were going, an entire sea parted and their leader was given ten commandments.

As Meredith and I grew more and more frustrated (each blaming the other for failing to correctly read the map), my children proceeded to add to the "fun" with comments like: "Daddy, I'm tired... Daddy, I'm hot... Daddy, please carry me... Daddy, I'm scared... Daddy, can I pee in the corn..." (By the way, as a side note, before you eat corn on the cob again, you might want to find out if it came from a corn field near Dawsonville.) Of all people, it was my six-year-old daughter, Emerson, who finally led us out. Relieved to escape the dusty heat of Hee-Haw hell, we rushed the lone concession stand and loaded up on Gatorade and water as fast as we could. A few snacks and one hayride later, and we were back in our minivan--our first (and possibly last) corn maze experience in the books.

There were some good moments. Sitting with my arms around my sons and daughter as we rode on the hayride was one of those moments that, at the time, seems almost unnoticeable; but you know that when you look back one day it will be one of those special memories you always treasure as a dad. Even the corn maze, itself, had some endearing moments. Hearing my youngest son, Carson, laughing hysterically as he rode on my shoulders and stopping to take a few photos here and there as we traversed the corn-husk-laden trails made for some fun moments too. Come to think of it, I guess the trip wasn't a total bust after all. Anything that provides a few precious memories with your family can't be all bad.

So, if you're going to head out to a corn maze this fall, be my guest. Just be prepared. Go when the weather is cooler and take enough provisions to survive three or four days in case you get lost and don't have my daughter to lead you to safety. As for me, I think I'll spend my Saturdays playing with my kids in the backyard or in some other place where Deliverance isn't a love story.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sorry everyone. No new Dadlosophies post this week. Also, I'll be taking next week off for Labor Day. Look for my next post on Monday, September 14th, by 10am. Have a great two weeks!

Scroll down to read all of my previous entries.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Praise God, School is Back!

Last week, my daughter went back to school. She's now a proud first grader. It seems like just the other day I was picking her up from preschool, her Little Mermaid backpack lightly grazing the ground as she shuffled off to class, holding her teacher's hand. Now she's no longer into Disney Princesses. Ariel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty have surrendered their thrones to Hannah Montana and the cast of High School Musical. My little girl is growing up fast. Before I know it, she'll be wanting a cell phone and texting messages. Next comes boys. Talk about frightening! I can hear the theme from Halloween growing louder as I think about it. Already, while in preschool, she's had one little boy ask her to marry him. Emerson told him that she would, but first she wanted to finish kindergarten and get a horse. That's my daughter, a romantic perhaps, but with a practical side. Since then she's completed kindergarten, but given that I still haven't bought her a horse (nor can I find a law enforcement agency that does criminal background checks on six-year-old boys), I can just about guarantee that Emerson won't be getting married any time soon.

Yes, if my wife and I stop to contemplate the swiftness of time, we can become a little sad at how fast the years move. However, truth be told, last week we were too busy being fired up that summer was drawing to an end and that the little ones were heading back to class. This year, for the first time in our parental lives, all three of our children will be in school at least a couple of days a week. A few days ago, it was Emerson. Next week, her little brothers will follow. My wife and I feel like a couple of inmates recently put on work release. Sure, we'll still be incarcerated first thing in the morning and again after 2pm, but in between we actually get to live adult lives. I can work without having to stop every ten minutes to yell things like, "Get Elmo out of the toilet!" or "Take your underwear off your brother's head!" As my wife does house work she can actually watch TV shows that don't involve singing dinosaurs, numbers of the day, or five rather creepy Australians called The Wiggles. (I don't know how they got the name The Wiggles, but whatever they're wiggling, they better not do it anywhere near my kids.)

Finally, Meredith and I can talk to one another for at least a few hours out of the day without having to out yell a three-year-old. No more sitting on the commode ten minutes longer than I have to and pretending to have an intestinal virus because it's the only place I can escape screaming, whining, and emotional meltdowns over who got the bigger pop tart at breakfast. At least until next year, I won't come downstairs every night to find my wife crouched in the corner of the kitchen, an I'm one spilled sippy cup away from insanity look in her eyes as she marks the refrigerator with a crayon, counting down the days until school starts like a prisoner tracking time until freedom. We've survived summer with three kids! Along with army ranger training and a couple of Asian religions that require you to beat yourself with bamboo, that's about as tough a test of endurance as you'll find.

Funny how life changes. When I was a kid, I lived for summer. I celebrated the last day of school and mourned the summer's end. I basked in the freedom of no school, no responsibilities, and as many trips to the pool as I could maneuver. Now, summer just means it's hot when I go to work. My wife and I frantically search for any art camp, gymnastics class, Bible school, or sport that will keep little people too busy to sit around the house all day with nothing to do but pout, complain, and take issue with the amount of crust left on their peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Heavy scheduling gets us through early July, but that's a month too short. We try to set up play dates, but all our kids' friends' parents are at their wits end too. The last month before school is turbulent. Vacations are over. Summer camps and classes are done. Play dates are few and far between. The little people are restless, discontent, and rebellious. It's like living in Munchkinland during the 1960s.

And so we begin another school year. Another year of attending meet and greets, school productions, chaperoning field trips, and scrambling to clean the minivan enough so that an avalanche of crackers, Cheerios, and discarded Happy Meal toys don't bury some poor, unfortunate teacher during car line. So goes life with kids. It's not bad. In fact, its right where I want to be. And, yes, summer's can still be fun (for a while). But, believe me, fall is sooooooo much better.

So off to school, little people. Mom and Dad are going to take a nap as soon as you're out the door. After that, who knows. Maybe we'll get crazy and watch the news--maybe even Sportscenter. Praise God, school is back! Where's the clicker.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reelin' in with Friends

Last Saturday night, I did something I haven't done in a long time: I went to a concert. A couple of my old friends from Charlotte, Patrick and Chris, drove down with their families early in the day and crashed at our place. It was a packed house. Six adults and seven kids made sure that the weekend was anything but quiet or boring.

We had a blast! The wives caught up with one another, sipped wine, and exchanged mommy stories. In between beers, the guys talked about the upcoming football season, pushed kids on the swings, and played a rousing game of boccie ball. Trust me, nothing says fun and excitement quite like three beer-drinking dads throwing rock-hard spheres in a yard full of frantic children. Fortunately, there were no concussions, although it was fun watching Chris chase his four-year-old around the swing set while yelling, "Let go of Daddy's balls!" After grilling out and downing a few hot dogs, the guys and I headed off to catch Steely Dan. Meanwhile, our angelic wives stayed behind to look after the kids.

I've never been a huge Steely Dan fan. But I like their music and was up for anything that would get me out of the house on a Saturday night, especially if it meant hanging with two of my best friends. Plus, Steely Dan puts on a pretty mellow show. At age forty with three kids, that's the only kind of concert I want. There was a time when I went to concerts to yell, scream, and be an obnoxious jerk, but now I reserve such behavior for little league soccer games ("That's a trip ref!"). All I want is a relatively comfortable place to sit, talk with friends, and listen to some good music.

We arrived about a half-hour before the show. After parking the car and hiking a good quarter of a mile in flip-flops, we made it to the ticket window. Patrick approached the window first and asked for three of the cheapest seats available. "The cheapest thing I have left is $70 each," the young man replied. For a moment, the three of us just stared at one another. Seventy bucks is steep for a concert. Heck, that's at least three trips to Monkey Joe's including the overpriced pizza. Ever resourceful, we asked if we could get in for $35 a pop if we just saw Steely and left Dan for another time. The ticket guy said, "No," all the while giving us a they don't pay me enough to put up with idiots like you glare. So much for thinking outside the box.

Fortunately, the seats were decent. We sat back, popped some long-necks, and settled in for the show. It was great. The band played most of their best: "Reelin' In the Years," "Hey Nineteen," and so on. I was disappointed that they didn't play "Rikki Don't Lose that Number," but after thirty-five years, I guess they figured that if she hadn't lost it by now they didn't need to keep reminding her.

In addition to the band, the evening also featured the standard really drunk girl sitting next to you that comes with almost any concert package. At the beginning of the evening she seemed extremely nice. An attractive young blonde out on a date with her boyfriend. The two of them struck up a conversation with the three of us over, of all things, garlic. Don't ask me how a night out to hear Steely Dan results in an impromptu garlic conversation. All I can tell you is, once you have kids, your brain falls into a state where any subject can arise at anytime. Nothing is off limits. We could have just as easily ended up discussing circumcision or the Jesuit priesthood. Regardless, garlic turned out to be a great ice-breaker (if only I had known this during my single days: "Hey Beautiful, what's a nice girl like you doing eating garlic in a place like this?")

In less than an hour, however, this "friendly young lady" digressed into an intoxicated mess. When she wasn't talking Patrick's ear off in unintelligible slurs and babbling, she was yelling "Woooooo! Steely' Dan!" and dancing like a girl in search of her long-lost pole. At one point, Patrick leaned over in the middle of a guitar solo and asked me to kill him. I told him that I thought it was adorable that he had managed to make a new friend.

Fortunately, we and our marriages survived the drunk girl debacle. Other than that one low point, it was an awesome evening and weekend. As dads, our lives are hectic. Work, family, and daily life can make it hard to get time with friends. Relationships can drift or get lost all together in a sea of well-intentioned but unfulfilled pledges to get together. But we need times like the evening I spent with Chris and Patrick. We need other guys in our lives that we can talk with, kid around with, fend off drunken concert goers alongside of , or just catch a ballgame together. Sometimes Patrick, Chris, and I will talk about deep stuff. We'll share concerns or challenges we face as dads. We don't just tell each other what we want to hear, we tell each other what we need to hear (even when it's unpleasant or means realizing we're the one who needs to apologize instead of our wife). Most of the time, we just enjoy hanging out and joking around. Serious or laid back, such times are always therapeutic.

So, dads, make time for the guys. Certainly, the needs of our wives and children come first. But getting some good guy time keeps life fun, reminds you you're not the only one fighting the daddy battles, and helps you be what you need to be for your family. Provided you're hanging out with the right kind of men--men who love their families as much as you love yours--guy time is often the place you find just the encouragement and boost you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and return home a stronger and better man. My only suggestion: avoid the drunken pole dancer at all costs. Trust me, Steely Dan or boccie ball is a whole lot easier to explain when you get home.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Diaper Wars

When my daughter was born, I was horrified to learn that a new baby craps eight to ten times per day. This fact still amazes me. As a forty-year-old man, most days I'd pay good money for just one good bowel movement. How something so small can produce so much waste in a twenty-four hour period is beyond my comprehension. A baby's bowels are like the Free Fall ride at Six Flags. They're not full for more than a few seconds before WOOSH! Down everything goes at a hundred miles per hour.

The rapid pace of infant poopage makes changing diapers a lot like playing paintball unarmed. Often you know when the baby is pooping. You see the unmistakable Oh my gosh, I think I'm squeezing a banana out of my rectum! look in their eyes as their face turns red and tiny grunts of satisfaction escape their lips. Other times you're holding the child and suddenly feel a quaking down below. Still, other times, you aren't aware that anything has transpired until that dreaded smell you've come to know all too well hits you square in the nostrils. Regardless of how you're made aware, you know what you have to do. It's time for battle. You've got to enter the combat zone. You've been dropped square into the middle of the diaper wars.

Cautiously, you open the full diaper to be greeted by things no human being should ever have to see. Even worse, you're well aware that the child may not even be finished. Chances are, it's a trap--a cruel hoax meant to get you to remove the diaper so that your precious angel can pummel you with even more baby waste the moment you're within range. The chamber of the gun isn't empty. It's merely cocked and reloaded, awaiting the moment fresh air hits your baby's bottom and alerts him or her that they are free to fire when ready. Don't shoot until you see the whites of Daddy's eyes!

As a first-time dad, you're a sitting duck. It takes time to master the art of the rapid diaper change. Sure, you did all right on that doll you practiced with in parenting class. But that doll didn't flail, scream, and kick the petroleum jelly out of your hand every time you tried to gift-wrap its loins. Like a lone soldier sprinting across open terrain, all the while knowing enemy snipers are somewhere on the hill, you rush against time. You pray to make it to safety before being fired upon. You get the baby's butt clean and fasten one side of a fresh diaper around his or her little hip. Almost there! The safety of camp is in sight! Then, just yards away from home base: rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. You're hit! Dad down! Like a slow motion scene from a Rambo movie, you can hear yourself screaming "Noooooooooooo!" You look to see yourself, the changing table, and the deceptively peaceful picture of your infant sleeping that sits on the nearby shelf all covered in infant excrement. Like a wounded combatant dragging himself to a nearby trench, you frantically scramble for wipes as brownish-yellow goo runs down the sleeves of your formerly favorite shirt. You manage to clean the child enough to finally get a fresh diaper on. But it's an empty accomplishment. You know you've been defeated. You made a valiant effort, but the enemy still took the hill.

Over time, you become a more experienced warrior. Your skills and speed improve. As children grow older and become squirmers, you master the skill of fastening diapers with one hand while keeping a resisting toddler pinned to the mat with your other. If you have multiple kids, you even learn to wield diapers and butt ointment while refereeing fights over Oreos and answering questions like Daddy, can Batman beat up a dinosaur? and Daddy, how can Mommy really love us if she's always making broccoli for dinner?

Eventually, the battles change as well. My youngest, Carson, is the only one still in diapers. Just having turned two, he's reached a stage where he wants to remove his diaper whenever he feels like it. He's not learned to go potty yet, mind you, but apparently Carson doesn't consider that a prerequisite. The other morning I entered his room to find my son standing in his crib, holding his diaper in his hand, and towering over a pile of his own doo-doo like a victorious gladiator over a fallen opponent. All the while he grinned back at me as if to say, "Screw you and your rules!" He was clearly bucking the system--rejecting traditional institutions of authority. The smell, the statement, the anti-authoritative display... throw in a couple of doobies, some signs that read "Make Poop, Not War," and a Jimmy Hendrix version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and you'd have had a toddler's Woodstock on your hands.

And so the diaper wars continue. March on young dads. Stay strong fearless moms. One day soon, the diaper wars will end. Until that time, keep plenty of hand sanitizer around. And the next time you enter your baby or toddler's room to be met by smells too foul to describe or the sight of a child finger painting with his own bodily excretions, take heart. Never forget, it's supposed to be this way. After all, war is hell.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Illusions of Control

I like to be in control. I rarely am, mind you; but I like to feel like I've got things taken care of. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a control freak. It's not essential to me that I be in charge of every event, call all the shots when involved in a group activity, or even be the main planner of a family outing. In fact, after a week of running my business, paying bills, playing with the kids, dealing with unforeseen problems, and managing finances, I'm more than happy to have a seat, drink a beer, talk to a buddy, and let someone else be the boss.

When I speak of the need to control, I'm speaking more of the everyday things most dads are concerned about. As fathers, we tend to carry a great deal of pressure on our shoulders. Our minds are always occupied with something of importance. Moms, without question, are under the gun too. But their concerns are often different. Moms tend to worry about whether or not the kids are eating right, did they finish their homework, is the house clean enough to avoid investigation by the CDC, and will there actually be enough time to hit the drive-thru at Chic-Fil-A so as to provide life-sustaining sustenance for the children somewhere between swim lessons and gymnastics.

As a dad, my concerns tend to lie elsewhere. I'm not overly concerned about the kids' menu. I love my kids, of course, and I care about their health. But I also feel like God made frozen dinners for a reason. I'm not a label reader. If it's on the store shelf, I figure the FDA must have given it the go ahead. I suppose I shouldn't be too quick to trust my children's well-being to the same government that gave us toys with lead-based paint from China, mad-cow disease, and poisoned peanut butter, but heck, nobody's perfect.

I'm more occupied with questions like How are we going to get all the bills paid? Am I saving enough money? How can I invest more wisely? What if my business doesn't generate enough income this month? Are we making the right decisions regarding the kids' educations? Will my daughter grow up to be president or a pole dancer? These are the worries that can so easily dog a father. We shouldn't let them weigh on us, but they often do. We love our families, we want to feel like we are being providers. We want to know that we are taking care of our wife (even if she works and makes more money than us). We want to know that we are giving our kids everything they need. In short, we strive to provide security. We long to be a shield between our family and the pitfalls of a difficult and insecure world. Even if the walls are cracking and appear that they could crumble at any time, we don't want our little ones to have a clue. We just want them to be kids. We want them to run, play, pretend, and learn to argue over who got to the swing first without anybody kicking anyone else, hitting someone, or throwing a toy, a stick, or the neighbor's wiener dog (sorry, Paul).

The irony is that, if we allow our hearts and minds to be burdened by all the insecurities that the present and/or future hold, we fathers can find ourselves failing the very people we long to take care of. If we aren't careful, financial concerns, family worries, stresses at work, etc. can occupy our thoughts, steal our attention, and conquer our emotions. Our kids don't really care how much money we make or whether or not we got a promotion, they just want our full attention for a game of baseball in the backyard or a pillow fight before bed. Our children don't need to know how tight the bills are (unless you have a teenager with a cell phone), they just need dad to laugh with them, tickle them, pray with them, and read them a bedtime story.

Of all the challenges we face as fathers, one of the toughest is successfully disengaging our thoughts from the concerns we have so that the expressions on our faces, the tones of our voices, and the sincerity in our words communicate to our children that there is nothing more important to dad than them. Kids don't need designer clothes, the latest video game, or the biggest house. They just need to feel like when dad is with them that he's REALLY with them--not thinking about a big deal at work or mathematically trying to work out payment plans in his head as he mindlessly pushes his three-year-old on a swing.

Even when times are good, we dads can let worries intrude. If you have enough money this month, you worry about next month. If the kids are healthy today, you worry about how they'll be tomorrow. If your savings are growing and investments are doing well, you worry about what could happen to the stock market, real estate, the banks. If positive things are happening at work, you occasionally think about what would happen if you lost your job. The worries are always there for the taking. There's always a load to pick up and carry. And, as much as we don't want to, we often can't resist grabbing a few sacks and throwing them on our backs (backs that were meant for more important things, like piggy-back rides).

So what do we do? How do we continue to take seriously the role we have as fathers and caretakers of our families, without succumbing to the anxiety, stress, and ill-temperament that often accompany life's challenges? I think that we must recognize two very important things. First, we have to realize that, many times, CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION. Certainly, we control some things. We control our decisions. We control how we choose to respond to situations and circumstances. We choose our priorities, how we treat people, what behaviors we choose to engage in, whether or not to be men of integrity, and whether or not to put our faith in God or our own efforts and abilities. The problem is, we often make the mistake of spending much of our energy worrying about things we can't control while neglecting the things that we can. We worry about whether or not we have enough money, but even the best laid financial plans are ultimately at the mercy of the economy, an employer, the stock market, the price of real estate, and a government that changes tax laws and regulations at the whim of whatever political constituency is yielding the most clout during a given election year. We worry about our kids, but beyond our best efforts to love them, teach them, and meet their needs, their health and ultimate well-being will be out of our hands (just ask a parent who's had to watch their daughter cry over a broken heart, seen their son devastated by the news that he didn't make the team, or--God forbid--endured the heartache of watching their little boy or girl battle a life-threatening illness).

Most of the time, even when we feel like we are in control, it's a lie. Even when we feel like we are on solid ground financially, our family is healthy and happy, and the stars are aligned in our favor, we are still skating on a thin sheet of ice. Jobs are lost in a day. Stock markets crash. Real estate markets plummet. Businesses fail despite our best efforts. One visit to the doctor can yield news that totally changes your life. Trying to control everything is like trying to chase bubbles with my kids in the backyard. You run as fast as you can to get there, only to find that when you try to grab it, the bubble pops, leaving nothing in your hand. To keep "chasing bubbles" is to set yourself up for a life of stress and worry. You will never actually have the things you are fighting for. Even when you feel like you've got it, some circumstance will arise to blow the illusion out of the water and bring you back to the reality that certain things are simply beyond your realm of control.

Second, I think we have to recognize the boundary between being responsible and being in control. As I said, there are some things we can control. We can control our actions. We can control our responses to the things that happen in our life. BEING RESPONSIBLE is about recognizing what we can control and doing what we need to. I can't control what the economy will do. I can be responsible and live within my means, save what I can, make the best investments and decisions I can based on solid advice and reasoning. I can't control all the decisions my kids will make. I can be responsible and spend time with them, mentor them, love them unconditionally, and be the person I long for them to be. I can't control how my wife treats me, talks to me, sees me. I can control how I treat her, talk to her, and whether or not I will put her needs before my own. The big difference between striving to be responsible and grasping for control? Being responsible is about decisions. Being in control is about outcomes. We have to accept it, dads: We can't control outcomes; we only control our own decisions that we hope will result in certain outcomes.

The answer, then, is to figure out what we realistically can control, then do the responsible thing. Many times, things will go well. Sometimes, disasters and tragedies will arise despite our best responsible efforts. But that is where understanding the distinction between responsibility and control becomes so important. The man (or woman) who sees the boundary and respects it, can still find the peace that comes with knowing they did their part. They acted with integrity. They used the knowledge and means at their disposal and did what any reasonable, caring person would have done. Perhaps that's the key to finding the peace we long for as human beings. It's like the old prayer: "God, give me the courage to change the things I can, the faith to accept the things I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." Let go of the illusion. Embrace the fact that there are things in your life that you simply can't control. Be responsible, but let go. Know that it is enough to do your part, and enjoy the freedom that comes with surrendering to life's "uncontrollables." Refuse to shoulder the burden of outcomes you can't predetermine. Drop that sack of worry and anxiety and free up your weary back. There's a little one right beside you who's been waiting patiently for that piggy-back ride.

Just a Heads Up! There will be no new Dadlosophy next week. Look for my next post on Monday, August 10, by 10am. -- Kindred